By ARAM MRJOIAN | REVIEWER.
Whether imagining the alien, nocturnal noises that await Adam and Eve outside of Eden or the public humiliation of experiencing erectile dysfunction while colonizing Mars, Allegra Hyde’s debut orbits one essential question – how do we define home? Over the course of a dozen stories, Hyde takes readers to a Caribbean campus obsessed with sustainability, a house repurposed as an antique shop, a Utopian small town necessitating its own registered trademark®, and failing communes inundated in acid, among others. Within these bizarre landscapes, Hyde’s characters struggle with the elusiveness of paradise. They partake in the quotidian sojourn for sanctuary, though—despite the fact that many physical spaces appear in Hyde’s work—her creation of the idyll is not constricted to boring Pleasantvilles. None of the settings embody trite expectations of home. Whereas fiction often attempts to take the known comforts of normal life and disrupt them, Hyde’s collection redefines expectations of comfort altogether. In many ways, these stories act against the traditional interpretations of Utopia, pushing away the universal urges for safety, stability, and routine.
It should be no surprise that, with a balance of diverse settings and topical steadiness, Of This New World was the 2016 winner of The John Simmons Short Fiction Award. Judge Bennett Sims called the collection, “an ambitious and memorable debut,” noting its thematic cohesiveness of the “ultimate Miltonic lesson.” That is to say, these stories undoubtedly belong together, as they braid related spiritual conundrums among disparate geographies. Each story has an inexorable sense of place, but the long-term security of the setting is always in question. Home is stripped to the bare necessities of its definition or skewed into a bizarre dreamland, so that the common interpretations of its terminology become obfuscated.
“It was the strangest funeral I’d ever attended. Sun-soaked—on the old farm field behind Sally’s house—the bereaved dressed in a rainbow of colors, the air sugared with cotton candy and the pangs of a string quartet. A downy white pony for children to ride.” Thus begins “Bury Me,” with a succinct opening that thrashes against the mundane. The doldrums of home are situated in the distance, the comforts of nature disrupted by a peculiar carnival of mourning. As the collection’s title suggests, Eden is always on the horizon, but also in the distant past. Paradise cannot easily be revisited. By exploring this tension, Hyde’s stories serve as points of entry to the ecotones between the familiar and the unknown.
In the case of “Bury Me,” the ecotone in question seems to be the nebulous era between adolescence and adulthood. Two adult women, Maddy and Sally, are forever bonded over shared college nights of binge drinking and unapologetic one-night stands. Years later, the loss of Sally’s mother reunites the duo for one last attempt at recreating the bacchanalia of their youth. Yet, both women must address the impossibility of recreating a treasured feeling of freedom that in retrospect never actually existed. In this way, “Bury Me” not only confronts the physicality of home, but also examines how often home is lost in the past, solely found in hazy, idyllic memories.
In “Ephemera,” a rambling mother named Vera finds home while searching for her lost daughter through a rundown “cowboy town.” Fatigued from months of canvasing, she holes up with an aging man named Carlos who has transformed his mother’s house into an antiques shop. What begins for Vera as a quick night’s sleep soon falls into routine as she rethinks her daughter’s disappearance and helps Carlos move on from the family homestead he’s never been able to sell. This setup allows Hyde to consider several elements the definition of home in one narrative. Family dynamics are morphed and reshaped, essential household items are sold off day by day. Does paradise require forks and frying pans, or can it be more abstract? The relationship between home and possession seems an unyielding inquiry that Hyde’s stories bring to light.
It’s important to note Hyde does not rely on motif to propel “Of This New World,” however. Sentence for sentence, this collection is chock-full of audacious prose, passages that are perfect in pitch and in rattling the terrain. The lyrical quality is sharp and one can easily be captivated by the language’s sheer beauty. Hyde’s constructions are precise to say the least—tlet your guard down would be to miss the nuances of fragility, fear, and confusion right beneath the surface.
Hyde’s underlying message could very well be that isolated geographies only have meaning in the context of the great unknown, and that finding paradise is independent of place altogether. Whether we are natives or foreigners in this in-between space is uncertain. What does seem certain, however, is that globalization through Hyde’s eyes has existed since Adam and Eve, and that the search for Utopia is an ancient quest of rapid-growing importance in the wake of connectivity. The world is shrinking, and everyone is seeking serenity by different means and in different places, but the hope of finding peace is universal. Whether that can be done is yet to be seen.
Aram Mrjoian is a regular contributor at Book Riot and previously reviewed Michigan books and literary culture at AwesomeMitten.com. He possesses an English degree from Michigan State University, a graduate level publishing certification from the University of Denver, and is currently working toward an MFA in creative writing at Northwestern University, where he is a reader at TriQuarterly.